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Md.'s outdated 911

Our view: Governor Hogan and lawmakers must commit to modernizing 911 — and finding a way to adequately pay for it

Whether trapped in a school building in Parkland, Fla. or facing sniper fire in Las Vegas, most Americans — even children — have a powerful tool at their disposal to fight back. Cell phones not only give crime victims the ability to call police, fire or emergency medical help, they can record and transmit video or still images of the crime in progress which can, in turn, be texted or emailed around the globe. But here’s the problem: Are first responders able to see and hear them? In many cases, the answer is no.

Amazingly, states like Maryland have failed to update 911 call centers to reflect this changing technological landscape. Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced plans for a “text to 911” system that will allow people to send texts of up to 160 characters to emergency responders in the coming months, but that still falls woefully short of what advocates call “Next Generation 911,” which would link the full range of digital platforms from social media to video chats, wireless phones and picture message with 911 call centers. Operators would be able to pinpoint the location of callers or texters through their digital footprint and not use the landline identification they rely on now. It would also better integrate call centers themselves so that overloaded centers (a common occurrence during a major emergency) could share their burdens temporarily with less busy neighbors.

So far, at least 22 states have adopted the updated 911 system or at least pursued plans to do so. Maryland, where Hogan administration officials say the matter is currently under study by an outside consultant, is not one of them, but that could be corrected shortly under a series of bills pending before the General Assembly. The proposals would, among other things, create a commission to plan so-called “NextGen” implementation. But the legislation also addresses at least two potential difficult issues — how to pay for the technology and training required and what to do about potential privacy concerns over photos and videos that will end up on the hard drives of call center computers.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading voice on NextGen, would like to raise the fee that pays for 911 today. Right now, consumers pay a $1 monthly charge on their phone bills (25 cents to the state and 75 cents to their subdivision). That fee already falls short of 911 costs. In Baltimore and Baltimore County, for example, the revenue only covers about two-thirds of the cost. In Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, it’s just 15 percent. The state’s portion is awarded to localities for capital improvements, not staffing or day-to-day expenses. Senator Kagan would raise the fee so that individuals and companies that operated multiple lines (a hotel or hospital, for instance) would pay a bit more than a household with just one line.

Yet here’s where we may part company with Senator Kagan. She’d also like to restrict public access to the photos and videos sent to 911 centers. Some people worry that public release of 911 material might diminish people’s willingness to contact 911. Yet that overlooks the proven value of allowing the public to hear 911 calls. Not only does that practice give Americans an insight to the extraordinary service provided by emergency operators, it also provides a far better understanding of criminal behavior. Broward County 911 logs, for example, are proving instructive in understanding the history of the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the police response to it (or lack thereof), including a 5-minute call from Nikolas Cruz himself made after a violent encounter in November of last year.

While it’s disappointing that Maryland is behind the times on 911 technology, a well-thought out and coordinated plan to upgrade call centers is clearly the best way to face the challenge and deal with a wealth of issues. That requires more than adopting a uniform technology but also finding ways to finance the improvements and protect the public’s right to see and hear what police and other first responders are seeing and hearing. It’s not sensationalism but accountability that should matter in this regard. Lawmakers may get no further than forming an oversight commission this year, but expecting a fully operational NextGen system by 2020 in Maryland is not an unreasonable expectation.

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